Get Your Board’s Hands Dirty

Ask not what the board can do for the organization, but what the organization can do for the board. Hint: Let ’em get their hands dirty.

The organization doing for the board? Board members with dirty hands? Surely this isn’t your grandmother’s nonprofit world.

No, but that approach, which seems at first counterintuitive to the very concept of nonprofit boards, is pivotal in the thinking of June Bradham, president of Corporate DevelopMint, a fundraising and strategic planning consulting firm that Bradham founded 20 years ago.

Calling on 35 years of nonprofit experience that includes both paid and volunteer positions, Bradham, who is also president of the South Carolina Association of Nonprofit Organizations (SCANPO), said that getting the most out of a board actually depends on helping the board get the most it can out of the experience.

“I have found that all of the training and all of the literature that deals with boardsmanship is about what the board is supposed to do for the organization,” Bradham said. “There is nothing about what the organization is supposed to be doing for the board, to make (service) a good experience.”

Bradham believes that boards can be very instrumental in the marketing effort of any nonprofit. In fact, when she made a presentation, “The Story-Driven Board: Creating Leaders, Storytellers, Champions” at the AMA Nonprofit Marketing Conference in July, she opened her talk by emphasizing the importance of marketing.

And a board that is involved in the marketing effort is one that is happy, engaged, charged-up about the organization and its mission. “Boards provide a fiduciary and moral compass, we know that to be true,” Bradham said. “On the other side of the fence, boards are in the position of being volunteers, not paid, and they are expected to give money to the organization.

“It’s interesting; I have looked at a lot of boards, and with any given board the members are happy, enthusiastic, glad to be part of it. They are the boards people would kill just to be on, would knock down your doors. On the other side are boards on which it is hard to keep them, they’re not engaged.”

One thing that Bradham found is that getting board members engaged is not simply a matter of ordering them to do so, nor is it the surefire result of training sessions — and she admitted to being “guilty of providing training to boards.” The approach of most training programs focuses exclusively on what either donors or people being served want, Bradham maintained.

To get a handle on what motivates and engages board members, Bradham first got a handle on her telephone, calling board members from 50 organizations throughout the country, choosing some of the biggest and best-known nonprofits with what she called “highly functioning boards.” Promising them anonymity, she asked them about their best and worst board experiences.

The first thing Bradham learned was that board members and potential board members are very interested in who else is on the board. They want to know if other board members are excited about the organization and its mission and if they project a feeling of trust.

“The first thing with (recruitment) is who asked them,” Bradham said. “It’s got to be somebody they respect.”

The sense of excitement and passion must continue. Bradham said that over time it is possible for that to diminish, possibly around the time that new members have become seasoned members.

Bradham also said she experienced an “Aha!” moment when she asked her respondents about the type of organization whose boards they would like to fill. Although serving on the board of one of the biggest or most illustrious nonprofits would certainly be an attraction, many individuals said they would prefer to serve on the board of a mid-sized organization. This is because they sense a chance to get involved in a way that can help shape a newer or smaller organization.

“They want to get their hands dirty,” Bradham said. “They hate it when they are only wanted to write a check. And they feel that quite often.”

Bradham said that the examples that were mentioned to her involved people being able to use their particular strengths or expertise, such as finances or marketing, to help an organization solve a pressing problem or set a direction for the future.

“They want to define the story and how they are going to tell the story,” she said.

In addition to defining and shaping, board members want a CEO they can trust and respect, who has a great deal of passion and who they can expect to really run the organization.

Not surprisingly, board members resent having their time wasted, such as at a board meeting that has much talking with nothing being accomplished. Bradham said the people she polled would rather have a smaller board – nine seemed to be an ideal figure – of “nimble” people who could really get something done for the cause. They have quite a bit of resentment for board members who are brought on in just to fill an empty seat, and they disparage a politically appointed board, such as at a public university, as a “mediocracy,” because members are at the beck and call of politicians. The consensus is that such a board is not a strong one.

The people Bradham polled love getting acquainted with new networks of people, and they value establishing a feeling of camaraderie, not just being taken to dinner. Making friends for a lifetime is important.

Having fun is important too. “It’s OK if you laugh in the boardroom, as long as the meeting is well run,” Bradham said. Members also like to hear from each other and not just from paid staff. Interaction is a necessity.

The issue of training was another touchy subject. Bradham acknowledged being “frankly surprised” at the answer she received when she asked her respondents if they had received any board training that was really meaningful.

“To a person, they said ‘No,’” Bradham said. “There was a long silence after that question. When you think of all the board training that’s out there, that makes you think.”

Executive directors and senior staff must be aware of managing their board relationships in a real way.

“It can’t be fake, it must be genuine,” Bradham added. “There must be real involvement, real engagement.

“They know you need money, but if the first thought is just (seeing them as) a checkbook, they won’t be engaged.”

“They’re really saying to you, ‘Know that the little things you do will make a difference to me.’”

With all that, Bradham said that finding board members has a different dynamic from what it had 15 or 20 years ago. People are much more mobile, even community leaders, and in place of company owners there are megabusinesses and plant managers.

At the same time, there are more nonprofit organizations, so that there are more slots to be filled.

“So here’s the deal: the most desired board member wants to be a board member, so there’s not a problem recruiting,” Bradham said. “But once you come to boards that are not as attractive – and that comes back to who’s on the board? – you will have to work harder to really attract them to what you’re doing. Are there plenty of people looking to be on board seats? Yes. Are there plenty of board seats? Yes.”

Bradham contended, however, that the top-rung organizations can still be choosy, so that getting and staying passionate about the cause is of paramount importance.

It can work two ways, Bradham said. On the one hand, a big, well-known organization will usually attract many first-rate candidates, but a smaller organization, well run and with a good CEO, can draw people who sense an opportunity to make a real difference.

In other words, they just might want a chance to get their hands dirty.


This article is from NPT Weekly, a publication of The NonProfit Times.

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